Politics & Government

Pierce County to offer wetland credits to builders

Pierce County developers who disturb or remove wetlands will soon have a new option for replacing these sensitive havens for native wildlife.

Starting this summer, public and private developers will be able to purchase credits from the county for wetland replacement. In turn, the county will offset the loss of those areas with wetlands elsewhere.

The county already has purchased and restored two 16-acre wetland areas, providing credits to sell. It could also sell “advance credits” to purchase and improve more wetland areas.

The program is patterned after one in King County, which became the first county in the state to sell the credits in 2012.

The Pierce County Council voted last week to start the program.

Dozens of private developers have inquired about it, said project manager Ann Boeholt . The city of Tacoma and the state Department of Transportation also have expressed interest.

Boeholt said it’s similar to a wetland mitigation banking program and will benefit both developers and the county. The program could start as early as July.

Until now, developers’ options have been to restore, create or purchase wetlands in exchange for those they alter or remove during a building project.

“This is a good deal for the developer,” Boeholt said. “It saves time and it is actually cheaper than the developer doing it on their own.”

But Tiffany Speir of the Master Builders Association of Pierce County said she doesn’t expect local home developers will use the program for now. The cost per credit is too high when added to overall building costs, she said.

“As it stands right now, the cost of doing business becomes prohibitive for a lot of projects,” said Speir, the association’s executive officer. “It’s like a toll on a bridge. You’re paying for something that’s already been developed.”

Speir said her organization supports the wetland credits concept as a way to preserve larger — rather than piecemeal — areas of wetlands. Self-financed large projects of at least 20 acres are more likely to purchase credits, she said.

She doesn’t expect builders of smaller projects to participate until the credit cost goes down and their profit margins increase.

The county previously constructed the South Midland reserve in 2007-08 and the Larchmont reserve in 2013. The two reserves will provide a source of credits within the Chambers-Clover Creek Watershed, which covers much of the county.

The county purchased the two areas to restore wetlands and to get a head start on some type of wetland replacement program.

“That is one way we are a trendsetter,” said Boeholt, who works for the county’s surface water management division.

The two areas provide enough wetlands for 166 credits at $40,000 each, covering the county’s costs of $6.6 million for the two sites.

Federal regulations require the county to charge a rate to recover the full cost of wetland restoration but no more. It potentially could charge less with state and federal approval. Payments to the county would be used to develop more wetland sites.

Wetlands provide important ecological benefits. They are homes for native birds, frogs and salamanders, as well as plants integral to the food chain. They are a habitat for young salmon and trout, and they’re important for trapping pollutants and preserving water quality, Boeholt said.

Offsetting the loss of 1 acre of wetland could require buying 20 credits at a cost of $800,000. The amount of credits required will vary, depending in part on the extent that wetland functions are disturbed.

Boeholt said she expects public developers will use the program more than private developers initially as a means of complying with local, state and federal regulations.

She said the county’s program can speed up environmental permitting and delivery of a project. By doing so, it will promote economic development, she said.

Boeholt is hopeful that private developers will come to understand the benefits of the program and that credit costs potentially could come down.

Before becoming eligible to buy the credits, developers must prove they’ve done all they can to avoid disturbing or removing wetlands.

So far, the first and only applicant is the county itself. Pierce County’s road division wants to spend $24,000 for a portion of a credit to offset a wetland it can’t avoid filling in. Its project is an intersection improvement at 176th Street East and 78th Avenue East in the Frederickson area.